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Perilous journey of illegal Indian immigrants to America

Around two years ago, 37 men launched a hunger strike at the El Paso detention centre in Texas. The people were protesting their detention by US immigration authorities for crossing into the US from Mexico without travel-related paperwork.

world Updated: May 08, 2016 10:03 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Families of the immigrants pay up to $30,000 for the illegal passage into the country.
Families of the immigrants pay up to $30,000 for the illegal passage into the country.(Representational Image: Reuters)

Around two years ago, 37 men launched a hunger strike at the El Paso detention centre in Texas. The people were protesting their detention by US immigration authorities for crossing into the US from Mexico without travel-related paperwork.

What was surprising was that these people were not the usual suspects — Mexicans — but youth from India, specifically Punjab, who made a perilous journey spanning several continents to reach America.

The detainees had relatives in the country and were even willing to wear ankle bracelets, an electronic device used by US authorities to monitor illegal immigrants.

The detained youth came to be known as the El Paso 37 but the number is just a fraction of the total that comprises the phenomenon of young Indians, mostly Sikh males, trying to enter the US in this manner.

Irving, Texas-based immigration attorney John Lawit has represented such cases for decades (including 30 of the El Paso 37), but he said that in recent years, “There is an unprecedented flood.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, pointed out that based on her discussions with officials, it was believed there was a “50 per cent interdiction rate” which meant the actual number of those crossing over illegally could be double those reported. Vaughan said, “Interestingly, the peak year for apprehending Indians was in FY2011, but it seems to be rising again. Certainly recent years are well above historical levels.”

The immigrants’ families pay up to $30,000 for this passage, according to Lawit, which is organised by human-smuggling networks with agents operating in rural Punjab. “They go from village to village recruiting people,” he said.

Vast numbers walk or swim into America and seek political asylum citing alleged political persecution in India. Interestingly, there have been instances of detainees being associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal – Amritsar, the party of separatist leader Simranjit Singh Mann. In fact, all 30 of Lawit’s El Paso 37 clients were active members of that party.

Among the lawyers now representing those facing removal proceedings is Gurpatwant Pannun, founder and legal advisor to the activist non-profit Sikhs for Justice which has filed cases in US and Canadian courts against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi, and recently, Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh. Pannun’s law firm, which operates in New York and Toronto, now has a California outpost that handles such immigrants’ cases. He said he has between 25 and 30 active clients.

There are tragedies involved, young men have gone missing for years, some have drowned while on boats, one committed suicide. These issues are raised consistently by groups like USA-North American Punjabi Association or NAPA.

In Milpitas, California-based executive director Satnam Singh Chahal said: “They sell off two or four acres and run off here for opportunities but they don’t know how much hardship they will face.”